A City of Layers

Ciao da Venezia!

As most of you probably already know, the group and I have been here in Venice since Thursday afternoon! And lord almighty, we’ve had quite the experience. We have been staying in the Pensione Guerrato, a wonderful hotel situated a few steps away from the Rialto Food Market. Every morning, we walk outside to the smell of fresh fish and fruit, and make our way through the hustle, bustle, and laughter that fills the market. It’s honestly an experience unlike any other—something that feels distinctly Venetian.

Just as in London and Geneva, everyday Dr. Weldon has been leading us around this amazing city and its surrounding islands. On Friday, we started our academic adventures by exploring St. Mark’s Cathedral, the Doge’s Palace, and the prison that sits on the other side of the Bridge of Sighs from the palace. It’s quite a jarring experience to transition from Geneva, the world center of the Protestant faith, to Venice, where the Catholic faith (once literally) reigns supreme. At St. Pierre’s Cathedral in Geneva the presence of the Christian faith feels subdued. High-vaulted ceilings, gray walls, little light. St. Pierre’s presentation of faith feels cold, but in a calculated way. At St. Mark’s in Venice, everything is the other way around. Inside the Cathedral and the Palace, every wall is covered in paintings of God, Jesus, Mary, and the various saints of the past. The ceilings are adorned in gold and the pillars are made of fine marble. It’s all beautiful, eloquent, and, frankly, in-your-face. The difference between the two cities is night and day. It’s strange, really, how both cathedrals are meant for worshipping the same God, yet they are almost opposites in their design.

On Saturday, we visited Lido, one of the farthest islands from the mainland of the city. Apparently, Lord Byron, our effervescent playboy of the Romantic Era, once swam from the shore of Lido, across the lagoon of Venice, through the entirety of the Grand Canal and out the other side of the city, all in one go—a four-mile swim. Of course, this is debated as Byron is a man well acquainted with exaggeration. Nevertheless, the Lido was a sight to behold. The island had an entirely different taste than the old city of Venice. There were cars and buses available for use, which were completely absent in the old city and the streets were not crowded with the selfie-stick vendors and gondoliers looking to lure you into their money-sucking, if not incredibly impressive, boat rides. The island was open, quiet, and free from the commotion of Venice life. Better yet, on the far side of island, the Adriatic Sea stretches out for miles and miles. Being able to explore the island and spend a few hours on the beach (which I spent collecting seashells and staring at waves), it makes sense that while Byron was living in Venice, he and Percy Shelley would often come to Lido to ride horses and have intellectual conversations.

Other activities that we partook in while in Venice include the following:

  • Cheap pizza and VERY cheap wine, for those inclined to drink, for dinner three out of the four nights we spent here. The first night, we had a group dinner at a “fancy” restaurant a few minutes’ walk from the hotel.
  • Watching two incredibly talented artists craft small birds and other animals out of molten glass in their small studio on the island of Murano.
  • Trying to keep up with Dr. Weldon as she charged on across the streets of Venice when a few of us got caught in an unexpected wave of tourists flooding towards us.
  • Exploring the beauty of modern art at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in South Venice.
  • Lots and lots and lots and lots of walking and getting semi-lost in the confusing back streets and pathways of Venice (which actually isn’t a bad thing at all).

But, through all of this exploration and education in Venice, one theme has rose to the surface of our conversations again and again: layers. Just as the rising tide of the lagoon seeps through the cracks in the streets of Venice every morning, leaving little puddles for hours after the water returns below the surface of the city, the concept of layers has continued to command our thoughts and experiences here in Venice.

There is no better way to describe Venice than to call it the City of Layers. I understand, it sounds strange, but hear me out. According to Dr. Weldon and her vast expanse of knowledge (and don’t worry, I also looked it up myself), Venice is literally built on layers of material. At the very base of the city, at its core foundations, there is an entire forest of pine tree logs propped up in the water-logged swamp terrain that Venice sits atop. Atop the pine trees, which is one of the only woods to not rot when submerged in water over a long period of time (in fact, it hardens), is stone, concrete and other sturdy materials that the city and its various buildings are built upon. I don’t know about you, but when I first heard this, my mind was blown. An entire city built upon layers of ancient logs? That’s crazier than creating a city where the streets are replaced with canals!

But, incredibly enough, the layers motif doesn’t stop at the foundational level. It runs much, much deeper than that. At a cultural level, layers are present. Situated on the edge of Italy and on the Adriatic Sea, Venice is a mixture of cultures. Time and time again, Venice has been a harbor for those seeking refuge from the turmoil in their countries, and a countless number of people have immigrated to the city in order to take advantage of its trade opportunities (or, as we have seen, they simply fell in love with the eclectic vibe of the city).

At a historical level, layers are present. Over and over again, this city has been raised, destroyed, changed, and formed into something different than its previous incarnation. During its glory days, when Italy existed as a collection of independent states, Venice was an empire in every sense of the word. Titled the Republic of Venice, from the ninth century to the twelfth century, the city existed as one of the largest trade powers in Europe. And now, with the slow decline of Venetian prosperity that began in the late fifteenth century, the city lives on the layers of the past. People come to Venice to visit the Doge’s Palace (the government of old), ride gondolas (the transportation of old) and soak in the “feeling” of Venice (the product of years and years of a history written, erased and rewritten).

But, most importantly, at an emotional level, layers are present. Venice is, at the center of it all, a city of grand emotion. Venice is a city of love and hate. Venice is a city of hope and despair. As I walk these streets, whether I am lost in my own head, deciphering the various marks of graffiti adorning the walls, or simply concentrating on the way the reflection on the water ripples as a gondolier’s paddle enters the water, I can feel the emotion that vibrates through, and off of, everything here. Everything about this city—its culture, its history, its economy, its future, everything—is based in strong emotion. And that emotion is layered. It’s layered in the way Byron writes about his love for Venice. It’s layered in the way Byron writes about his disappointment in the city’s decline. It’s layered in the way Shelley writes about the Byron in Venice, riding horses up and down the beautiful coasts of Lido. It’s layered in the art that is scattered across the streets and plazas of the city. It’s layered in the way I see Venice. It’s layered in the way you see Venice. It’s layered in the way we all see Venice.

Venice is a City of Layers.

The Rialto Market just outside the Guerrato! Fresh fruit every morning!
South Venice from the Vaperetto (water-taxi) taking us to St. Mark's Cathedral!
The Bridge of Sighs - On the left, the Doge's Palace. On the right, the Prison. In the old days, once you go over the bridge, you never came back.
A Panoramic view of the Great Council room in the Doge's Palace! One of the largest rooms is Europe!
The sun rising over Venice in the morning!
A panoramic view of St. Mark's Plaza!
A great view of the Venetian Lagoon from the shore of Lido - If you look really hard, you may be able to catch the Alps in the background!
Ladies and Gentlemen: The Adriatic Ocean and the Old Man. My best photo ever.
The entire group hanging by the Adriatic Sea!